Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Dark Continent

This is Africa, the Dark Continent. I’ve always believed this name derived from the color of the people, but I see now it is for an entirely different reason.
I live in a small town, so I know about power outages. I remember the shadowy, frigid mornings when Laporte lost power. (They were more frequent when I was younger. I wonder if the power lines have been strengthened). We would start a fire using flashlights, and try to make toast over it.
But even when the electricity is working, Ghana is much darker than those mornings. And when the power outages occur, at least three times a week, it is so dark I forget I have eyes.
My ears grow sharp at these times, the singing of villagers, clucks of chickens, and pounding of rain become my world.
With or without power, Boko is a feast for the ears. Always, roosters are crowing, children are laughing, the mosque is calling, the churchgoers are chanting, radios are blasting. The houses are open, so it is easy to hear people talking or watching TV walking by. If the rest of Africa is this way, it is the Loud Continent.
And the Continent of Very Strong Smells.  Spices that are distinctly foreign to me mix with the scents of frying food, burning trash, and occasionally human sweat or excrement.  It’s sensational, often enjoyable, often causes the nose to wrinkle.
Africa: The Dark, Loud, Continent that Smells Strongly. I like it.


In America, you are taught, from the time you are able to hold a phone, that if there is ever an emergency, you must dial three numbers, and help will arrive in the form of an ambulance, firetruck, or patrol car.
I know well how important this service is. A friend and I once found an unconscious man in our neighborhood, and had to dial. My own brother had lung blockage at when he was four days old, and would have died if no ambulance was available.
Here in Ghana, my host brother has been very ill. He’s been plagued with headaches so severe he is unable to stand.
On Monday, September 17, my host parents decided he needed to go to the hospital. This was a good judgment because he could no longer sit up straight, and his breathing became labored.
My host family doesn’t own a car. This is not usually a problem, as there are frequent tro-tros into Kumasi from Boko. But getting Kofi to the village station would have been impossible. Ma decided to call a taxi.
I didn’t think much of it, mostly because I was so worried.
When the taxi finally arrived, Ma said: “I’d like to carry him, but I can’t.”
I stepped forward to offer my help, but Ma began speaking very fast in Twi. Before I knew what was happening, I was holding Ma’s purse, and Marta (my host cousin/sister), an Auntie, and Ma were carrying Kofi to the taxi at breakneck speed.
I held the doors open for them, trying my hardest to help. I have never been more afraid and confused in my life.
It was only after the taxi drove away that the gravity of the situation began to sink in.  A taxi. Ma had called a taxi. Why not the Ghanaian 9-1-1? What about ambulances? Stretchers?
Then it hit me. I had not heard a single siren the entirety of my two weeks in Ghana.  
Are there ambulances in Ghana?
I considered voicing my question to Marta. But if it needed to be asked, I knew the answer.
Ghana, in spite of having electric lights, running water, and houses at least as well accommodated as the one in Laporte, is a developing country.
We were lucky. Kofi will be all right. He’ll come home from the hospital soon. (UPDATE: he came home Friday, September 20. He has to have some scans done, but he’s recovering well.)
But, I wonder, how many Ghanaians weren’t so blessed? How many taxis didn’t get there on time, caught in that infamous Ghanaian traffic?
Ghana will be okay. It is a developing country, and is developing very fast.  (I hope to devote a few blog posts to that subject.)  In a decade or so, I believe Ghana will have the infrastructure to support emergency services. But how many lives will be lost in that decade?
And how many nations, in Africa and all over the world, have no reliable ambulances?

Friday, September 14, 2012

Live from Ghana

It is September 13, 2012. I am settled and more than happy in a home in Boko, Ghana. Boko is a small village outside Kumasi, the large city I probably told you I'd be living in. My living situation similar to the Laporte/Fort Collins idea at home.

The past week has been the longest of my life. I flew to New York on the 5th, navigated the airport with significant savvy (one would think I flew alone long before becoming a YES student!) and passed a somewhat lower than expectation Gateway Orientation. It was loosely organized and the most valuable information came from young exchange student alum.

September 6th was a long day at the hotel because our flight didn't leave till 11:00 pm. Our flight to London was strange...they decided to feed us a full meal at 1:00 am. Lydia and I woke up when the carriage passed, and we ate in confused stupor.

The Heathrow Airport was even crazier than JFK. But I enjoyed everyone's accents, and also the fact that seven students from Belgium Flanders joined us on the flight to Accra. (Did I really only meet them a week ago? It feels like a month, at least...)

 We landed in Accra, greeted by the Ghanaian humidity and the vivid, varied smells of urban Africa. Jamirah, who was our group leader in Washington, met us at the airport, to the delight of all the YES girls. That night, we stayed in a guest house in Accra, joined by two French students and several AFS volunteers, including my host brother, Prince. Before we were fully, cognitively awake the next morning, we were on a bus to Elmina, a beautiful beach town with the oldest castle in Ghana. We toured the castle, which was a heart wrenching place. West African castles were not for kings, queens, knights and the like. They were prisions for thousands of men and women who were part of the greatest forced migration in history: the Atlantic slave trade. They were kept in very crowded rooms with little provisions and no means of hygeine for months. Hundreds of years later, those castles still stink of vomit, urine, and blood. It is an anomaly, really, that any of them survived to face the next hardship: the middle passage of the Atlantic.

At the castle, which many foreigners visit, we became targets for money for the first time. People would ask us cordially for our names and then write our names on seashells, demanding large amounts for them. The AFS volunteers were annoyed, and made sure we got back in the bus and ignored these crazy (and likely bored) teenagers. I did, however, meet some kind university students who were impressed with my red hair!
We checked in to a beautiful beach hotel.  I have never stayed anywhere like it.  We ate at a nearby restaurant, shedding our shoes and running on the sand. Like twenty best friends. And really, we'd only been together twenty-four hours. But I think, whether you are French, Belgian, American on the YES program, or American on AFS, it is only a certain type of person who chooses to be an exchange student in Ghana for a year.

When our food came, we shared, as if we'd known each other our whole life. I have two new families, my host family, and my AFS family.
The next day was packed with even more adventures! We walked on a canopy over the rainforest in Kakum national park, and then toured another slave castle. When we returned to our guest house in Accra, it felt like we'd been away weeks and weeks.
Our next day was really the only day of orientation. We visited the US Embassy, which was very welcoming and happy to give us advice. We rode the tro-tro (essentially a van converted into public transportation, if you've ever been to Central America, think of the "chicken buses") to a market in Accra. It was there that I experienced real culture shock for the first was a beautiful feeling...and scary. I was surrounded by so many new sights and smells, and everyone was staring at me like I was a chicken with no head or something. But it was more beautiful than scary, because I knew this country would become my home.
The rest of the day passed in orientation session. The night passed in being sick. Americans seemed to think I caught some bacteria. Ghanaians seemed to think I "took too much spicy food". Either or both is possible, at any rate, I'm better.
We drove over the hills and forests for hours to Kumasi the day after that night. It was so beautiful to see students united with their families. I was dropped off last, but Oliver and Zaza, the Belgians hosted in Sunyani, came inside to see me off.
And finally, after a week that lasted a year, I met my family. They are the kindest folks around, and easy to talk to. There are many family members who live nearby, and I've already meant uncles, aunts, and a great-uncle. At home, I have a brother, Caleb (or Kofi, because he's Friday born) and a sister, Bridget. I love my new family, and the neighborhood. I went for a walk yesterday, and all the little kids swarmed the obruni (Twi for white person) and begged me to take their pictures. I did, and showed them, and they squealed with glee. They tried to talk to me, but my Twi consists of Hello, How are you?, and Thank you. I talked to a few kind teenagers who spoke English. They were worried I was lost!
I am very happy here, and I look forward to sharing my experiences here on this blog.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

My Calling

I have said goodbye to almost all of my college bound friends. I love you all, whether you are at Montana, Wyoming, CU, DU, Pac Lutheran, Saint Olaf, or right here at CSU. I will miss you, but I know you are all exploring what you love. As I will be, in 3 short days.

This afternoon, I said goodbye to my aunts, uncles, and cousins, who have been such an important part of my life since birth. My relations have always been family, never strangers.

I feel compelled to share my most poignant goodbye. One week ago today, the class of 2012 at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church was invited forward for a blessing as we begin our lives in the outer world.

Did I mention the SOTH class of 2012 consists of two people? Friends, family, and mentors laid their hands on Tim and I as our pastor blessed our journeys. Every emotion, laugh, tear, conversation, and God experience that had touched me in the six years I spent at SOTH returned to me. It was the closest I have ever felt to the divine. That bundle of people was so full of love. It didn't matter who was touching who, because Tim and I had our hands on each other. I realized, though my first year away will be difficult, I will never have to say a final goodbye to these people. No one can tear what God has knit together.

After all of this, do I feel ready? Am I ready to experience a disruption so terrible and wonderful that my outlook will be forever changed?


Yes. I'm ready. This is my calling. To delve into another culture, promote understanding, and build relationships beyond borders and beliefs.

Four goodbyes remain. The four I will not contemplate until the last moment. Mom, Dad, Tyler and Griff.

But I am ready.

My Cousin Sam

Laura, Tim, and Sarah...the FCMOD sunglasses!

Tim, Jess, Laura, and Marc

My Uncle Dave

Family: Joe, Stella, Spencer, Me, Ryan, Tyler, Griff, Sophie, Grant, and Danny

Sophie, Sarah, and Spencer 


Marilyn and Roger- The best next door neighbors ever!

The UW Girls-- Gabbie and Stefanie

My good friend Daniel!